Writing my list of friends and family to whom I would send Christmas cards was particularly emotional this December. It’s my first year sending out Christmas cards (I’m trying my hand at being an adult), and I had no idea how quickly my list would grow. After the classic “Mom and Dad”, sister and brother-in-law, a list of aunts and uncles and cousins, I wrote down the names of men who had been work colleagues of mine. I work with men who have once been incarcerated, and it is unfortunately true that some have relapsed in their addictions and returned to prison.
With three names already on paper before me, I was overwhelmed when I remembered that there are at least three other men whose names I had forgotten to write down. I started to cry, realizing that if I wanted to be fair and do the right thing, I really should write to every person in a local prison. The magnitude of such a project like the one I was building in my mind became disheartening.
But! Then I remembered that I work for a conscientious nonprofit, and that we are currently collecting funds to fulfill exactly the same objective as my Christmas cards. Since October, 100 staff members across five stores have been collecting money to fill Christmas stockings for inmates at our local correctional facility. The stockings are filled with snacks, toiletries, a Christmas card, and the Gospel of John. Distributed by volunteers from the ministry with which we partner, these stockings are presented as a physical marker of the gift of God’s love at Christmastime.
For the most part, customers at the register who donate a dollar to our project are happy to do so. Some donate with indifference, and I understand why; Wawa, CVS, Target, Giant…everyone’s got a cause, and what’s one more dollar? There are a few, however, who take the time to be viciously unsupportive. As I was sitting on my couch, with my Christmas card list still in my hands, I was dwelling on some of the commentary I’ve heard. There are those who gladly offer a dollar – until they ask for more clarity about where their money is going. It’s like ringing a death knell for that particular donation when I say, often proudly but sometimes with trepidation, “We are fundraising to distribute Christmas stockings to inmates.” After providing an explanation, I’ve heard, “Those animals deserve to be where they are,” and “Why don’t you do something to help children instead?” among other things. I explain, “We include the Gospel of John and they are distributed by volunteers who seek to show prisoners God’s love.” One customer responded, “If they can’t find the Gospel of John or God’s love in prison by themselves, they aren’t trying hard enough.”
That’s right. Because God’s mercy and infinite love are contingent on trying hard enough.
Has your experience been similar that it is often the voices of naysayers that seem the loudest? Hundreds of customers have been supportive and loving in their gifts, but I am stuck on the voices of those whom I cannot bring to a metaphorical place of understanding. I think, if only I could spend more than ten seconds with this customer. Then we could arrive at a place of respect for each other. I’m not a saint – I am often critical of what I don’t understand. But I’ve rolled the following ideas around in my head long enough, and I’m tired of allowing critics to take center stage on this very personal issue. In an attempt to drown out the voices of the misinformed, I present to you my heartfelt (not to mention indignant, cleverly-worded, and well-researched) reply – my guide to consciously processing and maturing the public attitude toward the prison community.
First, a look at the effectiveness of prison as rehabilitation, the response to “They deserve it.” Research concludes (accounting for reasonable variables) that removing prisoners from the mainstream public is not effective for reducing the rate of recidivism – that is, the likelihood that a prisoner once released will return to prison. In fact, offenders with community based sentences such as probation or parole are demonstrably less likely to return to prison than their incarcerated counterparts. Further, “low risk” prisoners, such as those who are jailed in county prisons on minor offenses, experience significantly increased recidivism rates when given prison sentences, compared to probation or parole. One conclusion we draw is that relegating an offender to a prison cell for extended periods of time indeed perpetuates and contributes to a trap that already awaits released offenders. If we are in search of sustainable solutions to reducing crime and strengthening communities, imprisonment is not a long term fix. So while a form of punishment may be in order for the individual offender, I contend that neither the offender nor local communities “deserve” the aftershocks of a prison sentence.
While probation and parole are far from holistic approaches to rehabilitating offenders within the mainstream population, it seems as if there’s a better shot for these men and women to steer clear of criminal activity and maintain their freedom. It is unscientific for me to speculate, but I want to take it one step further – what if all members of a local community were deeply and consciously involved in the rehabilitation of their neighbors? What would that look like?
A partial answer can be found in a University of Cincinnati study, The Importance of Correctional Program Characteristics and Their Relationship to Offender Outcomes. It’s an expensive study to purchase, so I had to work from summaries and abstracts, but here’s the bare bones of it: The researchers examined government-run halfway houses as well as private facilities where ex-offenders commit to living in an intentional community with the aim of rehabilitation. The study listed a “strong network of support for the residential correctional program…in the wider community,” as a key characteristic of programs which have been successful in reducing recidivism rates. Says one researcher, “If the facility is hosting community picnics, that’s a good sign. If there are pickets when I show up, I know that’s a bad sign.” Successful programs reduce recidivism in their residents by 50 percent. The least successful programs increase recidivism by 32 percent. This puts the power to shape local communities directly in the hands of people living in the same neighborhood. Do they reach out and seek to participate, support? Or do they isolate and alienate the ex-offenders?
This is paramount – incarcerated folks will leave their cells and return to communities carrying in their hearts and heads whatever their prison experience was. Do they re-enter families and neighborhoods feeling abused, neglected, and angry about it all? My theory is that ex-offenders who feel this way don’t truly settle back down into communities, and will be cycled in and out of prison in years to come. There’s no trust, no spring from which they feel like they can act for the good of those around them. They accept the “good for nothing” label with which they’ve been saddled, because that’s been their experience. And if no one shows them a way out, then that’s where they’ll stay.
This is my response to the argument that we should fund raise and “do something for the children.” In extending grace to prisoners, we show them that they are good for so much more than “something”. We show them that they are irreplaceable, that God has a healthy future for them, that they are so loved. And if a person, incarcerated or not, can come to accept that truth, how much more prepared is he or she to be a positive actor for good within a family? Very few states provision adequate policy for child welfare when the parent is incarcerated, and relationships between parents and children are damaged when a parent serves a prison sentence.
The long view is that by reaching out to the individual prisoner, we affect sustainable change within families, and to a greater extent, communities. The prisoner who is shown that she is worth God’s limitless care has a reason to evaluate her impact on those around her, extending that same care. Similarly, a prisoner who re-enters his community with an increased sense of self-worth has a stronger foothold from which to make good decisions and take ownership of his future. This is a person who is better equipped to care for children than a person who never had an opportunity to accept God’s message of healing. The gap that has been left by the government who will imprison an offender but is limited in the ability to provide counseling, has in part been bridged.
But again, that answer is partial, a starting point. What is it that would motivate a community of people to open their arms to a population of “undesirables” in the first place? What is the mind-blowing nugget that can reshape hardened hearts? This is where we must allow the Almighty to enter and act on us.
“He will put the righteous people at his right, and the others at his left. Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father!…I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ The righteous will answer him, “…When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did this for me!’” (Matthew 25: 33-40 TEV).
A few things come to light. The first, that God is the one who chooses the righteous. The second, that we are closer to God by caring for our community. The third, that we cannot recognize the son of God with our own eyes, right in front of us. How then, can we ever assume a position besides humility, gratitude for forgiveness, and absolute love when we approach the imprisoned. God’s love is the sustainable approach, the spring from which our compassion can flow to match His, and never run dry.
Matt Kearney, in his song Down, captures an emotional progression that can be applied to accepting the humanity of the incarcerated population.
“All that we need, it’s so bittersweet,
the pain that opens our eyes to see,
baby, when all you see is darkness coming down now.
We all need forgiveness.”
It’s painful to accept people back into the fold after we feel they have wronged us. Whether someone has wronged me individually or in the abstract, there’s a very natural human desire to expel them from my experience. But it is not an option for me to accept God’s forgiveness for myself and negate it for others, is it?
I believe that if my naysayers would take the time, their hearts might be moved, their mindsets shifted. It is so clearly within the power of my customers to create healthy communities by restoring ex-offenders and reaching out to the incarcerated men and women – rather than antagonizing or neglecting them.
I feel at the same time restless and intimidated – I want to spread my message, but it’s hard.
I’m young so I must be naive.
I’m a woman, so I must be soft.
I’m educated, from the northeast, so I must be a bleeding heart liberal.
I’m a Christian, so I must not be practical.
Forget all that.
I am a person who experiences love and forgiveness when I could never conceivably deserve it.
I am a person who finds it impossible to keep from sharing that perfect gift.